Friday July 18th, 2008

LAS VEGAS -- I spent almost four days here, which is equivalent to 17 days anywhere else ...

5. Pre-preseason training for rookies. Kevin Love had just finished a 18-point, 17-rebound performance for the Timberwolves in their 95-93 loss Wednesday against the Lakers. "You've got to take it with a grain of salt,'' he said of playing in the summer league. "When you start playing next year in the regular season, it's going to be two levels up from here.''

It's always hard to know what to make of the performances at summer league, where only a few players from each team will be playing in the NBA next season. Golden State rookie Marco Belinelli was the hit of this event last year with an opening 37-point game, but during the ensuing season he managed just 2.9 points in 33 games. Donte' Greene, the No. 28 pick in last month's draft, made the game look easy when he exploded for 40 points in his pro opener with Houston this week, but most people -- including the Rockets -- figure that he'll struggle to earn minutes as a 19-year-old rookie in the regular season.

Summer league forces rookies like Love and O.J. Mayo to get over the ludicrous hype of last month's draft and to launch into the rhythmic drudgery of the NBA season -- of practices, back-to-back games and coaches preaching the nuances of defensive rotations and other crucial details that separate the NBA from the NCAA. As well as the 6-foot-10 Love played offensively and on the boards Wednesday, he had trouble stopping his former UCLA teammate, the 6-9 Lorenzo Mata-Real, in the post at the end of the game.

"The biggest thing I need to improve is my defense,'' Love said. "I have to do it if I'm going to play alongside Al Jefferson.''

Love was adapting to the speed of NBA offenses -- "You've got to be able to get up the floor in the first four seconds,'' he said -- the size of the opponents and the professional mentality.

"In the NCAA tournament, you're playing for your school, playing for your passion,'' he said. "Out here, you're kind of playing for a paycheck a little bit."

But he's trying not to do that. "I'm just playing, chasing a game, not chasing the money, and just going after it," he said.

The point of this event for rookies like Love is not to be satisfied with the artificial numbers on the stat sheet. It's about gauging themselves for the season ahead. Love has lost 15 pounds since his freshman season, but he realizes he has a lot more to work away.

"The biggest thing now is just the wind and the body fat,'' he said. "I want to get to under 10 [percent body fat]. I'm about 12 or 11.5 percent right now. I was 15 to 16 percent [last season], so that's significant, being down that much. I'm going to hire either a nutritionist or a chef just to write it off on my taxes. I'm learning all the different stuff, even at 19, about the accountants and the things you can write off.''

4. Exposure for NBA veterans. Here and there are players with guaranteed contracts who come to summer league for a variety of reasons. In the case of Knicks point guard Nate Robinson, he wanted to begin learning coach Mike D'Antoni's fast-break offense.

"I've been playing different styles each of my three years in the NBA and now for the fourth one,'' said Robinson, who will be playing for his third NBA coach. "I'm just trying to get a head start on everything and see how it feels to play in this type of basketball up and down the floor.''

Most of the 21 rosters were filled with rookies or second-year pros. But free agents like 31-year-old Robert (Tractor) Traylor (playing for Cleveland), 27-year-old Dahntay Jones (Denver) and 28-year-old Keith McLeod (Dallas) were here trying to work their way back into the NBA. Andray Blatche, the Wizards' talented, 21-year-old big man, couldn't afford to pass up the minutes or the opportunity to lead his team for these couple of weeks.

Robinson is going to be a Sixth Man Award candidate in D'Antoni's offense, based on the speed, strength and instincts for playing in the open floor that he showed this week. He had no issues with playing in this minor-league format after three years in the NBA.

"It gives you a feel of the NBA, what it's going to be like,'' he said. "Every guy in here is not as good as guys in the NBA, but everybody here is trying to get a job. So they're going to play their heart out. If we've got guys who play hard and are competitive, that's going to bring the competitiveness out of you and you're going to play hard and get ready for the upcoming season.

"[At summer league] you'll never see Chris Paul, Raymond Felton or other [top] guys who came into the league when I came in. But I just came for a good sweat, play a few games, and it ain't going to hurt none.''

3. Establish the NBA's new offseason headquarters. Eleven teams based their summer minicamps here, with more expected to do the same next year. They've discovered -- to no one's surprise -- that it's easier to persuade veterans to attend summer workouts when their expenses are being paid to come to Vegas.

The growth of this summer league has also helped win acceptance for Las Vegas as a potential home for an NBA franchise. The more time that the league spends here, the more it will understand a market that used to frighten it.

2. One-stop shopping for foreign clubs. More than 40 teams from at least a dozen foreign countries attended summer league in search of young talent that isn't quite talented enough for the NBA. "This is invaluable,'' said Walter Szczerbiak, father to Wally, the Cavaliers' well-known shooter. "You can see the progress of a lot of players, see how hard they play.''

As an expatriate American forward, Szczerbiak played 11 years in Europe while becoming one of the great players in Spain during a seven-year run with Real Madrid through 1980. Since 1986, he has been a talent evaluator and "official U.S. representative'' for the Spanish ACB, which is the world's finest national league outside the NBA. I've seen Szczerbiak scouting the summer leagues here and in Boston for years, and he has no easy job.

"It takes a lot of concentration because I have to write something on every single player,'' he said. "This is a hard event because there are 21 teams. My ideal number is to see everybody three times, but I might not be able to do that here because they use two different gyms.''

Among his proudest summer-league finds were center Nate Huffman, who had a championship career in Israel, and Chandler Thompson, who had a long career in the ACB.

"This is the place to come,'' Szczerbiak said. "Where else can you see so many players in one place who have the talent level to play in a league like the ACB?''

1. Find sparring partners for USA Basketball. It's a small marketing gimmick, but the two best young players in Vegas -- as judged by an NBA panel -- will be invited to join the team that will practice against the United States later this month as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Jason Kidd prepare for the Olympics in China. Love and Jerryd Bayless are among the early favorites.

4. Now that the Sonics are on their way to Oklahoma City, what city without an NBA team is most likely to get a franchise? Is Vancouver or Mexico City a possibility? -- Andrew Mcewen, Wyoming, Ontario

Seattle obviously wants another basketball team. Well, why not put an expansion team in Seattle? The "new" Sonics could play in the Western Conference. This opens up a need for a new Eastern Conference team. Why not put the new team in Little Rock, Ark.? We already have a suitable arena (Alltel Arena) and just look at the support the fans give the Razorbacks. Arkansas doesn't have a pro team and it is about time we get one. -- Jason Wells, Searcy, Ark.

There aren't going to be any new teams domestically. If the league is to expand, it will be to grow new franchises in Europe per commissioner David Stern's vision.

I can't imagine an existing team moving to Mexico City or Vancouver, which lost its franchise to Memphis and isn't going to get another chance. It's in the best interest of Oklahoma City owner Clay Bennett to find a team to move into Seattle over the next five years, which would prevent him from having to pay $30 million in franchise alimony to the city of Seattle for bailing out on his lease. But the most likely home for the next nomadic franchise is Kansas City, which has an arena owned by the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which has deep NBA connections.

3. Obviously, one of Donnie Walsh's goals for the Knicks is to be under the cap by 2010 so that he can go after LeBron James and other free agents. I was looking at the salaries of the current Knicks players for the next several years and noticed that Eddy Curry, Quentin Richardson, Jamal Crawford and Jared Jefferies all have player options for either the 2009-2010 season or the 2010-2011 season. What is the likelihood that any of those players would not accept those option years? -- Tim, New York

Highly unlikely. Each of those players would have a hard time finding a team with cap space to award him a salary equal to or greater than he is receiving from the Knicks today. Their value may rise as the team improves, but for the moment Walsh is going to have to clear space via trades.

2. When players are bought out of their contracts in the middle of a multiyear deal, how does that affect the salary cap of the team in future years? -- Anthony, Waco, Texas

The terms of the buyout are applied to the cap. If a player making $8 million per year agrees to a buyout worth $6 million per year, then his value on the salary cap will be $6 million annually.

1. Do you like the Celtics to repeat as champs next season? -- Glenn T., Lake Oswego, Ore.

They're going to miss James Posey (see below) ... but next week I'll be coming out with my early predictions for the upcoming season.

3. New Orleans signs James Posey to a four-year contract worth $25 million. This looks like the perfect signing for a team that needed depth, experience and toughness -- all of which Posey has provided to championship teams in Boston and Miami over two of the last three seasons. While the Celtics won't find anyone to replicate Posey's versatility, they can go into next season expecting even better performances from youngsters Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe and Glen (Big Baby) Davis. As the Eastern version of the Spurs, they'll be able to recruit bargain-priced veterans who want to play for a championship, much as P.J. Brown did last season.

2. Brandon Jennings signs with Pallacanestro Virtus Roma of Italy. The move abroad by this high school point guard has created speculation of an exodus by American teenagers seeking to make quick money while preparing for the NBA draft and avoiding the NCAA rule book. I don't buy this as the beginning of a major trend. European teams with the money to recruit players like Jennings are under pressure to win every game. When those clubs don't win, they fire everybody -- the management, the coach and the players -- at a much faster rate than teams in the NBA. There may be an exception here or there, but for the most part clubs in Spain, Italy or Russia aren't going to throw money at young Americans who aren't schooled in the fundamentals of team basketball.

The only motive I can imagine for the club would be to negotiate a $500,000 NBA buyout in the American player's contract. When the player is ready to go back home, his NBA franchise would pay $500,000 to his team in Europe. Maybe the European teams can make a little bit of money that way.

1. The Nuggets trade Marcus Camby to the Clippers for the right to switch second-round picks next year. How often have we been able to say that the Clippers outsmarted somebody? This was a steal of Auerbachian proportions. They went from having no certain options to replace Elton Brand, to landing one of the league's best defenders as well as one of the NBA's finest community representatives in Camby, who is among the league leaders in charitable work.

I have learned that the Clippers' offer to the Knicks for Zach Randolph last week was much more audacious than first suspected. In addition to Randolph, they wanted the Knicks to send them a first-round pick and $3 million in exchange for Brevin Knight. The Knicks said no.

So why did the Nuggets say yes? They're out of the luxury tax next season, that much is true. But couldn't they have bartered a first-round pick in the deal? How does coach George Karl get the high-maintenance foursome of Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, Kenyon Martin and Nenê to band together when management just tossed out its only defender for absolutely nothing? The Nuggets still have a high payroll, no flexibility, a $10 million trade exception they're unlikely to use and a team with zero chance of contending.

I asked two experts to tell me who they liked in the opening week of summer league here.

2. Anthony Randolph, Warriors. "This is a long, multiskilled guy with freaky athleticism,'' a Western Conference GM said. "He can put it down on the floor and he can pass it. He has a good feel for the game. Because of his size [6-10], athleticism and versatility, he can hurt you in a lot of different ways. He plays with a lot of energy too. People were saying that he might be too skinny [at 205 pounds] to have an impact, but in his one full game here he went right at everybody. Look, he isn't going to move Yao Ming off the blocks, but with his speed, quickness and smarts, he'll find ways to hurt you.''

1. Jerryd Bayless, Trail Blazers. "He is a great fit for them, a tremendous scorer,'' a Western advance scout said. "He can spot up for the three-point shot, and he has a quick first step to get to the basket off the dribble or get to the foul line. The other guy I've seen here who does that well is Eric Gordon of the Clippers. They both have NBA bodies with strong legs, and in the lane they know how to shift their bodies and draw contact while still being able to finish the play. Bayless looks like he's built like a running back that way.

"The Blazers are building for the future, and that future may be now. Bayless isn't a true point guard, but he can back up the position a little bit. He's made some nice passes off the pick-and-roll here. And he can play in the backcourt along with Brandon Roy, with Bayless covering the point guards while Roy leads the offense.''

1. Seattle, 1993. Van Exel was in Seattle for a predraft tryout with the Sonics. "We had a breakfast about 7:30 in the morning,'' recalled George Karl, a former North Carolina Tar Heel who was coaching the Sonics at the time. "And Nick had made a comment in his senior year about Dean Smith being just an ordinary coach. So during the breakfast I kind of ripped him -- for an hour -- on some of his questionable characteristics in his life. I was really hard on him. He was pretty good about it, but I was really tough on him.''

After breakfast, Van Exel went up to his room to dress for the workout. Downstairs in the lobby, Karl was threatening to cancel the workout and drive Van Exel back to the airport, to punish him for his heresy against the Carolina godfather.

"So I'm waiting for him in the lobby,'' Karl said, "and he walks off the elevator wearing a Duke hat.''

He came out of the locker room and walked right past Karl without making eye contact, his Duke turned sideways on his head.

"He said it was coincidence,'' Karl said. "But he knew what was going on. I said to my assistant, 'That's really bull----! But it's good bull----.' "

Van Exel had an excellent workout for the Sonics, and he went on to have a strong 13-year career for six teams other than Seattle. But this week he has been an assistant coach for the summer league team of the Nuggets, whom Karl now oversees as head coach.

"He's pretty good as a coach,'' Karl admitted grudgingly. "He knows the game.''

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